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Middle East at the beginning of the end of instability, journalist says

  • Limmud17
British-Israeli journalist and author Jonathan Spyer is one of the few Israeli journalists who have operated in Syria and Iraq during the conflict over the past few years. It enabled him to unpack the complex web of ethnic, religious, and political alliances, events, narratives, and general muddle of Middle Eastern politics for Limmud participants in Johannesburg last weekend, and how it affects Israel.
by JOCELYN ROME | Aug 10, 2018

Spyer witnessed the rescue of trapped Yazidis (one of Iraq’s oldest minorities) from the attempted ISIS genocide in 2014. He witnessed Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad regime’s assault on the Syrian city Aleppo (against rebel fighters). He was also there to witness the rise of an independent Kurdish power in north east Syria, and the emergence of Shia militias in Iraq.

Spyer believes that the Middle East is at the beginning of the end of the instability caused by popular uprisings. The Middle East of 2018 is substantially different to that of 2012, he says, when there was an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He also points to the changes since 2014, when Assad faced the very real prospect of defeat in Syria.

Spyer centres his analysis on the collapse of Arab nation states, particularly in the region encompassing Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The breakdown of strong central governing authorities in these countries resulted in the rise to power of localised militias and warlords operating along religious, ethnic, and sectarian lines. Competing blocs of influence have taken advantage of such instability.

The first bloc, and of greatest concern to Israel, centres predominantly on Shia Iran, and encompasses Iran, Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen. This, the most coherent of all the competing blocs, is driven by the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, specifically responsible for exporting the Islamic Revolution.

Countering this bloc is a Sunni-led area of influence that is coalescing around Egypt, and which is unencumbered politically by the Muslim Brotherhood. This block includes the monarchies of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and latterly Qatar.

Unlike the Iranian-led bloc, this bloc is less cohesive, united only on certain issues such as countering Iran, but on opposite sides in Syria. There are indications of growing co-operation between these countries and Israel in areas of mutual interest.

Spyer believes Russia’s emerging influence in the region is not just to support Iran and its vassals. He sees it as ensuring the continuation of its interests and influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Seeking to fill the vacuum left by the Barack Obama administration’s withdrawal, Russia’s military intervention on behalf of Assad in 2015 was decisive in turning the tide of the civil war.

Responding to a question from the audience about the apparent good relationship between Putin and Netanyahu, Spyer commented that most serious Israeli policy makers were unhappy about Russia’s presence. He said the Israelis were trying to get the best possible outcome, given that Russia’s involvement was in its own self-interest. The Israelis are aware that Russia is not always allied to Iranian interests, and they want to use this to leverage Putin’s lack of explicit anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment.

Spyer acknowledged the difficulty of knowing what a United States under Donald Trump’s Presidency was really thinking. However, he is cautiously encouraged by the start of some consistency in US policy on countering Iran economically, inhibiting its ability to operate freely in the region.

Does all this signify the prospects of a more stable political order in the Middle East? Spyer thinks not, but just as the scenarios are different now to what we’d have imagined in 2012, he points out that when change happens, it occurs rapidly.

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